Movements Monday Preview: #SaudiRights Twitter Chat with Saudi Activists
In Saudi Arabia— one of the world’s most repressive countries—a human rights movement is building momentum. This Monday—January 14—we will host the next in our series of Movements Monday features: this time a live Twitter chat with young Saudi cyber activists who will share their perspective on the human rights situation in the Kingdom of Repression and explain where their cyber movement is headed. Please join in our conversation by Tweeting questions and comments to the hashtag #SaudiRights or to Movements.org’s handle, @AYM.
January 14 is, of course, no insignificant date— it was on this day 2 years ago that ex-Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was forced to flee his country after a bloody 2 month revolt that also ignited a wave of protests against dictatorship across the Middle East and North Africa. When Ben Ali fled Tunisia, the Al-Saud regime—being the kind tyrant-hosts that they are— granted him a permanent stay in Saudi Arabia where he has remained for the past 2 years: a wanted man unwelcomed in any but the most repressive of nations.
The Social Saudi
Aided by the explosion of social media users in the country, young Saudis over the past two years have increasingly been using digital tools to discuss topics that were once anathema in any public forum. Reflecting a pattern seen elsewhere in the Middle East and around the world, the flourishing of social media in Saudi Arabia has been accompanied by an expanding audacity to discuss topics that were once unmentionable in the ultra-conservative nation, such as women’s rights, corruption, and the treatment of political prisoners. Hashtags like #Women2Drive and #Tal3mrak have flourished and even emboldened some to take to the streets demanding change in the Kingdom of Repression. “A few years ago, no one would dare to criticize the king or royal family,” noted one blogger Movements.org spoke with. “Now they are doing it openly on Twitter, using their real names and everything.”
According to Saudi social media consultancy TheSocialClinic, in the country of 19 million citizens, Saudi Arabia now has over 3 million Twitter users, with growth in 2012 peaking at an astonishing rate of 3,000%. Facebook has attracted 6 million Saudi users, and with 90 million video loads each day, Saudi Arabia is the #1 country for YouTube viewership in the world. As is the case everywhere, a fair share of this traffic is dedicated to videos of animals burping the alphabet and lengthy sermons by religious leaders.
But an interesting new study has also confirmed that social media users across the Arab World are more than twice as likely in some cases to use Twitter, Facebook and other tools to discuss politics, religion, and social issues. From Tunisia to Bahrain, as use of social media has increased, users have recognized its power to open up new channels of discourse that were previously shut off.
A Movement Stirs In the Kingdom
In March 2011, Saudi’s first “Day of Rage” was organized via Facebook, with some pages in support of the protest attracting more than 30,000 fans. Though only several hundred protestors turned out on that day, follow-on events over the past two years have inspired similar protests that have at times succeeded in bringing hundreds to thousands of supporters to the streets. In May 2011, prominent women’s rights activist Manal al-Sharif shocked the nation by posting a video of herself driving a car.
Women are banned from getting behind the wheel in Saudi Arabia and the bold stunt resulted in the regime detaining Manal in jail for two weeks. A follow-on campaign led by Manal and others called #Women2Drive succeeded in inspiring numerous women to post videos of themselves driving and generated a vibrant conversation on Twitter and Facebook from both advocates and at times very angry opponents of the protest. The #Women2Drive hashtag has remained active to this day, and the campaign even inspired British indie rapper m.i.a. to record a music video in tribute to the courageous female protestors for her single “Bad Girls.”
In addition to women’s rights, the plight of Saudi Arabia’s estimated 30,000 political prisoners has also been the focus of online and on-the-ground protest actions. Recent campaigns on Twitter led by youth activists have aimed to get hashtags such as محاكمة_معتقلات_الرياض# (“The trial of the women who were arrested in Riyadh”) catapulted to the front of the Saudi Twitter landing page as trending topics. By so doing, activists are hoping to confront the country’s millions of Twitter users and engage them in a difficult conversation about human rights. Many of these Twitter protests and Facebook events have succeeded in bringing small-scale protests to the streets, particularly in the restive Eastern region of the country, where Shi'a populations have long been marginalized. During a recent womens protest in the town of Buraida, a small group of female demonstrators marched through a main avenue only to be quickly surrounded and arrested by authorities. Subsequent demonstrations and sit-ins in support of the women have also prompted large-scale arrests.
The frantic reaction of the security forces to such a seemingly inconsequential group may reveal much about how concerned the regime is with street-level events. Over the past year, their concern for online protest actions seems to be increasing as well.
The Regime Cracks Down Online
As Saudis have begun to find their digital voices, the government has begun to crackdown harshly on those who are perceived to challenge the authority of the House of Saud or question the ultra-conservative religious doctrine that is the foundation of the regime’s power. In February of this year, 23-year old blogger and journalist Hamza Kashgari posted an imaginary dialogue he had with the Prophet Muhammad, posing some pointed religious questions. Realizing he could be in trouble with the authorities, Kashgari attempted to flee Saudi Arabia and escaped to take asylum in Malaysia. The Malaysian authorities immediately deported him back. Today, Kashgari sits in prison, where he now faces charges of Apostasy that in Saudi Arabia carry a sentence of death. Fellow youth blogger and activist Raef Badawi was similarly detained in 2012 for setting up the website “Free Saudi Liberals” and questioning the wisdom of the Kingdom’s Grand Mufti on Twitter. This December, Badawi was referred to a higher court for charges of apostasy, and also faces possible execution. Most recently, famed Saudi writer and intellectual Turki al-Hamad was rounded up by security forces for a series of Tweets which questioned religious extremism and pleaded for reform. The day he was arrested, al-Hamad Tweeted: “Our Prophet had come to rectify the faith of Abraham, and now is the time when we need someone to rectify the faith of Mohammed.”
جاء رسولنا الكريم ليصحح عقيدة إبراهيم الخليل، وجاء زمن نحتاج فيه إلى من يصحح عقيدة محمد بن عبدالله..— Turki H. Alhamad (@TurkiHAlhamad1) December 22, 2012
Liberals have sprung to action online in support of al-Hamad and the other cyber activists while conservatives and government-sponsored Twitter accounts (nicknamed “Eggheads” for their lack of profile photos) have waged unrelenting attacks. All this has left many young cyber activists in Saudi Arabia confused about what is and isn’t allowed, nervous about the government’s repressive tactics, and yet more determined than ever to build support for their human rights struggle.
Detained activist Mohamed al-Qahtani—founder of one of the lone Saudi human rights organization, the Saudi Political and Civil Rights Association (ACPRA)— has remained defiant throughout his numerous court interrogations. He’s even taken to Twitter to give an accounting of the trial’s absurdity:
"The interrogator came with a bunch of papers containing my Tweets, attached to a paper signed by Mohamed Bin Nayef (Minister of Interior). He started to look through these papers and ask me about them."
— Mohammad Al-Qahtani (@MFQahtani) January 8, 2013
"I told the interrogator: 'I'm baffled! In stead of caring about issues related to security or tracking criminals, the Minister of Interior is dedicated to following what people are saying on Twitter!'"
سألني المحقق عن عدة تغريدات نسبها إلي، وكانت إجابتي هي التحفظ على الوسيلة دفاعا عن حقي في حرية الرأي والتعبير السلمي#مواجهات_التحقيق— Mohammad Al-Qahtani (@MFQahtani) January 8, 2013
"He asked me about a couple of Tweets that he attributed to me, and response was not to respond because I reserve my right to freely and peacefully express my opinion"
It remains to be seen what effect this recent wave of arrests and detentions will have on the budding human rights movement in Saudi Arabia. But if the struggles for freedom across the MENA region have taught us anything, it's that no mattter the cost, once free expression has been unleashed it cannot again be chained.
As one young blogger explained to Movements.org, “The Saudi regime only cares what the world thinks of it.” This is where you can help! Join us on Twitter Monday, January 14 to chat with young Saudi activists and learn more about what life is like inside a nascent human rights movement. Then spread the knowledge and educate others about their struggle!